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January 19, 2015
by Cindy Ariel,Phd

Terror in France: The Impact of Gender

January 19, 2015 07:55 by Cindy Ariel,Phd  [About the Author]

Terror Can Be Anywhere

Je Suis Charlie! I am Charlie! These words reflect the signs and voices heard around the world following the January 7, 2015 terror attack at the satirical paper in Paris, France. Many people strongly sympathize with the writers at Charlie Hebdo and hold fast to their freedom.  They are together in anger and defiance.  The rallying cry, “I am Charlie”, shows unabashed support of the newspaper and freedom of speech.  ‘Being Charlie’ holds other meaning too, and gender plays a significant role.

Terrorism is a seemingly random and uncontrollable act of violence yet it is not random; it has the clear goal of striking paralyzing fear in as many people as possible. Terrorism attempts to intimidate the larger population through threats and unpredictable violence of innocent people creating helplessness and fear on a much wider level than its immediate action. People can show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing a trauma, from knowing of the trauma through people close to them who experience it, or from watching media reports of terrorizing events.  People exposed to terrorism, whether directly or indirectly through friends, relatives, and/or media exposure, frequently feel as if they can all be potential victims.   Yes, they are all Charlie; they are all potential targets. Anyone can be a target at any time.


What does it mean to live daily life with this knowledge? Fear is an important emotion, and is a normal response to certain frightening situations such as being victimized by crime, or by terror. Fear affects the way people perceive danger in many situations and also affects behavior in acting to avoid situations that are frightening.  Fear is healthy when it raises anxiety enough to give people the energy level needed to act proactively or to act in the moment for self-protection.  It is when fear produces levels of stress and anxiety that are immobilizing, or psychologically damaging that it is no longer a healthy response.  Coping adaptively with fear is made more difficult when the fear stems from terror. 

Gender Differences?

Men and women are equally vulnerable to terrorism and the potential collective trauma it creates, though gender is a strong predictor of fear of terrorism.  There are gender differences in the way we perceive, react to, and cope with fear or the threat of terror. Women demonstrate stronger fear reactions to terrorism and a higher level of psychological vulnerability.  These differences are important in understanding that while throngs of people react to ‘being Charlie’ in mass demonstrations, inside each individual there are various more individualistic (often gender based) ways of perceiving and coping with terror events. 

Much of the research on reactions to terrorism is drawn from studies based on fear of crime.  It is well known that men are more likely to commit a crime and to be the target of it. Women are more often targets of certain crimes such as sexual assault but in general, most crime occurs between and among men.  A paradox is found in the fact that despite this statistical fact, research demonstrates that women fear crime more than men. This has been called the fear victimization paradox, or the gender-fear paradox (Ferraro, 1996).  According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder website, gender is a significant factor in perception, mood, and posttraumatic symptoms.Women consistently show greater anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptomatology than men.

Several reasons impact why women are more fearful than men. First, they are in general more vulnerable being physically smaller and less muscular, in general, than males.  Rates of hidden victimization of women such as in intimate partner violence, family violence, or stalking also tend to raise the level of fear of crime for women.  Women’s fear of potential rape and violence can overshadow their fear of other potential victimization; they fear crimes even more because of the added fear that sexual assault can become a part of them.  Ferraro (1996) called the way women’s fear of crime is ‘overshadowed’ by fear of sexual assault ‘the Shadow hypothesis’. Women tend to perceive the risk of terror as higher level and more generalized than men do.

In large part as a result of divergent gender socialization men are more likely to minimize feelings of fear, and to deny danger. Men are less likely than women to direct their emotional responses outward and more likely to downplay risk while women perceive the threat of terror as a direct threat to themselves and others.  Men downplay risk while women fear more for their physical safety. Socialized most often as primary caregivers, a woman’s fears may be heightened by the need to care for, and fear for, many people in their lives.  

Coping Strategies

Three general coping strategies can be related to fear of crime and terror: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and avoidance coping (Folkman and Lazarus, 1980). In problem-focused coping, people focus on the source of the problem itself to come up with ways to change the problem and restore a sense of control or mastery over it.  The emotion-based approach to coping manages the stress of extreme challenge through seeking out emotional and social support. Lastly, avoidance coping is an attempt to avoid or deny the problem rather than to cope directly with it.

Just as differences exist between how men and women perceive and react to terrorism, ways of coping are also gender-specific. When terror strikes, men more often seek problem-solving solutions and their solutions are more likely to include types of aggression.  Men are much more likely to offer a solution such as more police protection or retaliation, which may help them to feel increased control over the chaotic situation.  Women are more likely to use social-emotional coping strategies such as seeking out friends or relatives to talk to, turning to religious leaders or counselors. 

The stereotypically female emotion-based coping strategies employ less anger and more sympathy toward victims.  In the case of bereavement, or when dealing with uncontrollable life events or emotions, emotional strategies often work best. However, while they may relieve psychic distress emotional support does not necessarily reduce feelings of vulnerability. Fear of terror, for women, remains higher than for men.

When dealing with the fear of terror a combination of coping strategies may be the best and most realistic option. Reaching out, joining others to overcome feelings of fear and alienation, and talking to friends can help with emotional resilience.  Relaxation methods can also help in the quest to cope with any stressful situation. A problem-focused strategy is also important in helping to manage whatever part of the issue can be controlled such as increasing means of security, protection, and safety.  This method tends to be very helpful in reducing stress through information gathering and assessment of practical solution options. Finally, while some distraction may be necessary at times to take a break from ongoing, unrelenting stressful feelings, an avoidant approach may offer the highest likelihood of maladaptive coping in the longer term.

The Conclusion

One week following the recent terror attack in France, US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr, was quoted as saying that thoughts of potential attacks in the U.S.  “… frankly keeps me up at night, worrying… It’s the kind of thing that our government is focused on doing all that we can… to try to make sure that it does not happen” (O’Keefe, 2015). He, like many terror victims, lies awake with fear and with determination to finding a viable solution. His problem-solving approach helps to combat fear by offering a strategy to move beyond feelings of helplessness, and lack of control. The ability to address emotional needs and to focus on solutions may determine longer-term ability to cope adaptively.

Fear of terrorism in an increasingly terrorized world can have a detrimental impact on daily life. Gender-specific perceptions and coping strategies in dealing with such a psychologically stressful event as a terror attack may have different affects on psychological, physical and social well-being.  When faced with a terror situation, every individual must find ways to cope adaptively with the various stressful factors involved, including the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of terroristic danger and harm. 

Many people find ways of coping adaptively and moving on in day to day life.  How people cope and what happens in the days following exposure can have significant impact on future coping and or the development of clinical levels of PTSD, anxiety and depression. There is a cumulative effect of living with the increasing amount of terror in our world.

In the aftermath of terror attacks, women tend to be at greater risk than men for developing long term psychological difficulties, including anxiety, depression and PTSD.  Men may minimize the impact and trauma to themselves and others.  Coping strategies reflect individual and gender differences and impact longer term adaptation.

Everyone is a potential target of terror.  People who have been touched by terror know this and this truth creates specific reactions, which are significantly affected by gender. Banding together en masse is a socio-emotional focused strategy that helps people to cope with the loneliness and fear inherent in the thoughts of being a potential victim.  Regardless of gender, people are a little less afraid to be Charlie, if those around them are Charlie too.

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Ferraro, K.F., 1996, Women’s fear of victimization: shadow of sexual assault? Social Forces, 75, pp. 667-690.

Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R.S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middle aged community sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21, 219-239.

O’Keefe, E. (2015, January 12). Dire warning for the U.S. officials: small-scale or “lone wolf” attacks are hard to stop. The Philadelphia Inquirer, p. A7.

The National Center for PTSD; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


About the Author

Cindy Ariel Cindy Ariel, PhD

Cindy Ariel, Phd has practiced as a psychologist for over 20 years. She received her master's degree from the Graduate School at Hahnemann Medical College and her doctorate from Temple University. Dr. Ariel writes occasionally for several publications and is co-editor of the book, Voices From the Spectrum (2006). She is also author of Loving Someone with Asperger's syndrome: Understanding and Connecting with your Partner, a self-help book for intimate partners of someone on the autism spectrum.

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